Of HIV/AIDS, heroes and memory
I am ten and my blood is corrupted. Like Magic Johnson, I am dying of AIDS. Unlike Magic, no-one knows. I drink from the kitchen tap directly, touching only the stream, so as not to contaminate the glasses. I do this when no-one is looking. I am furtive, dangerous.
Magic Johnson is about to give one of sport’s most famous press conferences. Reporters and cameramen pack the Lakers pressroom. It is 7 November 1991. They are waiting—like the country is waiting, like I am waiting—for their smiling prince. For more than a decade, Magic has performed thrilling prodigies of athleticism and charm, and now we are waiting for him to tell us he will die.
I am waiting far away, in the foothills of Perth—sleepy, homogenous, the centre of nothing. But American basketball has arrived. In suburban culs-de-sac, our imaginations host neon ingenuities of Los Angeles—Hollywood and the Lakers. Those imaginations are fed by rented videos and crumpled magazines, their posters liberated and displayed upon our bedroom walls. Our enthusiasm for basketball is uniform.
Except for this. The death conference. This is different. My imagination isn’t engaged like the others. It’s personal. Magic has the poofter disease. And so do I. The playgrounds exhale naive rumours and cruel jokes. I stay quiet. Do I still shoot hoops on asphalt courts? Tentatively. Years later, I will write an absurd rap about it: ‘Five foot three, waving ineffectually / for the pill outside the key / but if I split my knee, lethality.’
The press conference will become a touchstone for America. People will later ask each other where they were when they first heard. Documentaries will mark its anniversaries. On this day, various experts are assembled around it. LA shopkeepers are sought for their opinions. Health experts take the opportunity to warn America that the virus doesn’t exclusively affect homosexuals, drug addicts or sex workers. In the coming days, articles will eulogise the prince, anticipating his death and conspicuously marvelling at his courage.
For all this cultural production, precious little was available to me as a kid in Western Australia. My intense interest is not gratified by the 40-second clip on the evening’s news bulletin. From this snippet, I attempt to divine … what? Clarity? Hope? Confirmation of doom? Longer clips air on the weekend sports shows, accompanied by glib panel discussions. I don’t notice the glibness, only men publicly discussing my private nightmare instead of full-court presses and perimeter shooting. It is harshly exhilarating. A proxy recognition. They are, I think, talking about me too, but because of this I am terrified of somehow being exposed. I secure their platitudes on tape, and when my parents leave the house I replay them. My intense interest in Magic’s infection I kept secret.
‘Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today,’ Magic tells the room, the country, the world. ‘I just want to make clear, first of all, that I do not have the AIDS disease because I know a lot of you want to know that.’ This vital distinction is lost on me.
Reporters cried. Cameramen cried. His great friend and rival, Larry Bird, cried. The prince was doomed and the people wept, and now HIV had visited Hollywood, punctured its gilded complacencies, and wrested earnest comment from the mouth of its president where in his predecessor’s there was little.*
• • •
My bedroom was a private basketball court, and the bed that occupied a third of its space was a large and implacable opponent. Fixed upon my wardrobe door was a mini basketball hoop, red rim with white net, above which a cardboard cut-out of Michael Jordan served as a backboard. I had abandoned the orange foam ball the hoop was sold with—its fairy-floss mass meant it couldn’t be thrown more than a metre—and replaced it with scrunched sheets of scrap-paper braced with elastic bands and sticky tape, a ball sufficiently heavy that it might sustain an arc from one side of the room to the other.
Next to the bed was a small table. Upon it rested a radio with a double-cassette deck and in-built microphone. Using that, I recorded my own voice counting backwards from 24. This became my shot-clock, and I played it while imagining elaborate obstacles that prevented me from putting off the game-winning shot until the penultimate second. Sometimes I scored, triumphant. Sometimes the ball pinged dismayingly off the rim. Regardless, I replayed the clock, this time with a freshly conjured opposition. I set myself goals: five consecutive game-winning shots, say, before I retired for the night.
And I glistened with sweat because I was shimmying and bouncing around my bedroom, imitating athletic desperation, but sometimes I stopped and wondered: am I dying? Is my sweat lethal? It was different to the night sweats. Then it was my subconscious that was shimmying and bouncing, and I woke wet and trembling from its surreal exertions. I told no-one.
I just want to say that I’m going to miss playing. And I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus because I want people, young people, to realise that they can practise safe sex. And, you know, sometimes you’re a little naive about it and you think it could never happen to you.
It is hard to exaggerate our enthusiasm for American basketball back then. If you were a parent with boys in the 1990s, the odds were good that your driveway or back yard had been transformed into a court. In our small street, there were three fixed, regulation-sized hoops, as well as a variety of portable ones. I had a mobile ring with metal brackets that I hung upon the gutter of our carport, before the damage it caused to its paintwork prompted a ban. A neighbour owned a plastic hoop that we could carry and place upon any reasonably flat ground, before filling its base with sand or water. Its adjustable height, which could reach no higher than about six feet, meant we had a ring that was as exploitable for us as the regulation hoops were to our heroes. We had shrunk the world to accommodate our fantasies.
Nature offered other hoops. Any thick tree branch, extended horizontally at an agreeable height, became a ‘jam’. Upon finding one we would leap like monkeys, obnoxiously gripping the branch and swinging theatrically. If an unsuspecting friend was loitering beneath one, and we could assail him by leaping upon his back before grasping the branch, then all the better. With this zeal I leapt daily over an embankment of rocks on our property to reach a perfectly, if dangerously, placed branch that extended from a tree growing from the incline’s base. To reach the branch meant taking a running jump and assuming the risk of missing it entirely and tumbling down the rough slope. The other risk was that, from repeated abuse, the branch would simply snap and drop me upon the rocks below.
Which is what happened. The day before it did, I had jumped, swung and heard an alarming crack. But the branch remained. Recklessly unperturbed, I made the same advance the next day. Predictably, the branch broke and I fell. The rocks tore a dramatic gash in my knee and I limped to the laundry seeking medical attention from my mother. My father wasn’t impressed, especially since I had wrought similar damage to our clothesline a month earlier. This was before I thought my blood was corrupted; I’m not sure how I would have sought attention otherwise.
I played Jordan v Bird on a borrowed Game Boy—manipulating its crudely pixelated heroes for hours—and wrote short stories on scrap paper featuring icons in imaginary one-on-ones. Not having any pocket money, I borrowed magazines and replicated team jerseys with permanent markers and singlets lifted from my dad’s underwear drawer. When a friend’s mother bought me a Chicago Bulls cap for my birthday, I was sick with excitement but also shadowed by guilt—I assumed such items were prohibitively expensive. The cap became the source of an indescribable pride—in the merchandise itself, and not the team it signified—and I wore it everywhere. My parents, meanwhile, occasionally indulged my obsession—mini-hoops, a Shaq-signature basketball—but were as likely to admonish the scratched paint, defaced singlets, broken clotheslines, disfigured trees and my dismally myopic imagination.
We learnt nothing from basketball. What was there to learn? We had fun. We exercised our thin limbs. We spent years on our bellies on family room floors enchanted by dunk compilations. I suppose we bonded in our callow and mutually useful ways—basketball was less fun on your own—but I never heard from anyone ever again when I left the neighbourhood at 12.
• • •
I suspect that many childhood memoirs insist upon the importance of events to which their younger selves were actually numb, uncaring or oblivious. The ‘importance’ only becomes apparent to one desperate to artfully interpret their past. At this point, the ambitious author sweeps in and unconsciously (or wilfully) rearranges the scenery, replacing past occasions of obliviousness with sensitive engagement, and making neat and clear events that were random or inchoate. Memoirs can be a pretentious exploitation of hindsight.
Then why do it? I can only answer that journalists crave access above most things and, however boorish or fraught, there is no access more immediate or intimate than the one available with yourself. It is no higher or more interesting an access than any other—often much less so—but it permits a qualified authority. There is an abundance of detail, however prosaic, and there can be an evocative power in carefully compiling it. Yet communion with your past is threatened by prejudice, self-interest and the fungibility of memory. Right now, communion with my own past is constipated by repulsion. I have detailed kid games and cut knees, but failed to specify the incident that led to my imaginary death sentence. I’ve brought the ball up court, but the clock’s running down and I haven’t got my shot off. Let me offer this attempt.
I had long characterised what happened to me as molestation or abuse, but the truth is I no longer really think it was. He was a kid, much older but a kid nonetheless, and I think what occurred was experimentation, even if his subject was unwilling, cowed, manipulated. It’s difficult, all these years later, to ascribe malevolence to his fumbling, and yet … I recall calculated assurances. I am ambivalently strung: sensitive to the awful consequences but disinclined to condemn, when, years later, I would experience unequivocal deviance. To call both incidents ‘abuse’ seems like a category error.
• • •
Magic was important to me for a while. I was strangely tethered to an idol. But it wasn’t a sophisticated connection, nor constant. In contemplating my imagined virus, I was variously confused, frightened, forgetful, fine. The spectre of illness wasn’t permanent, but mercurial; dependent upon mood, upon things I heard in the playground or saw on television. Sometimes Magic was important; sometimes he wasn’t. My attention fluctuated. Which is to say that my nervous system couldn’t permanently sustain the idea of having AIDS. It required relief, distraction.
I would like to think that I always knew, however faintly, that I hadn’t acquired the virus. But I would be attributing a discernment that was beyond me then. Regardless, I remember occasionally lapsing in my belief that I was dying, and subsequently relaxing the behaviours I naively thought might mitigate the spread of my virus. Sometimes I forgot death.
If there were times when I didn’t believe that I was dying, I would still feel stained or deviant because of what had happened. These are my words now, of course. The author’s, not the boy’s. But there was sufficient fear and homophobia in the air then, thick like LA’s smog, and I inhaled its particles and could still feel deviant without possessing an adult’s vocabulary for transgression. I was without guide or anchor, buffeted by strange winds, and suffering a sense of having a deep moral disability: something bad and strange happened to me, so I too was bad and strange. It is a predictable pattern of child abuse, one I’ve seen repeatedly exposed in courtrooms, where the young victim internalises the sense of deviancy, and automatically and powerfully imagines their complicity in the abuse.
If Magic Johnson served as a distant foil for my fears, there was a larger figure on Australian television that brought me great shame and terror: the Grim Reaper, which starred in Australia’s most infamous commercial. It was a public service announcement about the threat of AIDS. At the top of a bowling alley, the virus—manifest as the cloaked figure of Death—wielded both scythe and giant ball. At the end of the alley were Death’s pins: tearful men, women and children. All were wreathed in a gloomy, spectral fog, which I assume now to be the simple provocation of dry ice with water, but back then confirmed for me the dark and spooky implications of the virus. ‘At first we thought only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS,’ the narrator told us, as the pin machine lowered its victims to the alley. ‘But now we know that every one of us could be devastated by it.’
Only now am I rethinking the commercial’s central metaphor. I had assumed Death was AIDS, but Death was death, capable of administering any mortal injunction he chose. It was the bowling ball that was AIDS, his chosen mandate, and the pins symbolically declared its indiscrimination.
The commercial seemed to terrify everyone, and was pulled from the airwaves before fulfilling its intended run. While still running, it aired in the ad breaks of the anodyne quiz shows and sitcoms I watched with my parents, and when it did my little heart was cleaved with fear and I stiffened my legs and shut my mouth. That bowling ball was coming for me. It was just a matter of time. ‘If not stopped,’ the narrator said, ‘it could kill more Australians than World War II.’
At least, that was my memory. But researching this, I now realise that it couldn’t have happened this way. The commercial was broadcast in 1987. I was six. This was well before I thought I was dying. Before my immature antennae could absorb and clumsily interpret the culture’s vexed relationship with sex. Perhaps the image of the Reaper lingered. Or perhaps my ‘qualified authority’ is more qualified than I thought.
If we are confident about anything, it is our memories. But they are closer to ghosts than objective documents. Our memory is liquid and reconstructive, prey to the perversions of bias, suggestibility and trauma. And when we summon a memory, it is often the memory of a memory—and so on—meaning an essential part of our identity, as it rests in our recollections of ourselves, is hopelessly suspect. Despite our faith, our minds are not museums, but a windswept coast marked by erosion. If our mind is a museum, we are unreliable curators.
• • •
Magic made a comeback, just months after his announcement, when he was selected by fans to participate in the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando. Met with effusive applause, Magic received hugs from teammates and opponents before tip-off. Tim Hardaway had relinquished his starting position for him, and Magic obligingly gave the crowd his famous repertoire: drives, round-the-back passes, no-look assists. There were skyhooks and three-pointers. After Magic nailed a distant trey late in the final quarter, the game was abandoned with 14 seconds to play—it seemed improper to end the match any other way. He was the game’s highest scorer and its ‘most valuable player’, National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner David Stern told him. ‘You’re a most courageous person, the moment is yours. Congratulations.’ Buoyed, Magic began planning a full comeback for the 1992–93 season.
But it wasn’t all sweet and enlightened camaraderie. Some NBA players thought the welcoming reception to Magic owed more to his fame than it did to medical assurances. Magic was simply too big to question; a player of lesser stature would’ve been exiled, or at least asked to prefer the safety of his peers over a political campaign. Unnamed players began expressing their fears to the press. Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, who at least had the courage to put his name to his comments, showed reporters his battle wounds in a locker room just a week before the 1992–93 season started. ‘Look at this: scabs and cuts all over me,’ he said indignantly. ‘I get these every night, every game. They can’t tell you you’re not at risk, and you can’t tell me there’s one guy in the NBA that hasn’t thought about it.’
Magic was loosely guarded in the All-Star match, which wasn’t necessarily a sign of his opponents’ fear: these games are high-skilled goofs. But when the brutally competitive Malone suggested that he might not have the confidence to properly defend the comeback kid, the comment stung. And when Magic cut himself in a pre-season game, causing great angst among his peers, he realised there wasn’t the supportive consensus he thought there was. Believing he could be a poster boy for an uncomplicated heroism, he was instead a besieged cypher for the country’s anxieties. ‘I got tired of it and tired of having to defend myself,’ Magic told reporters, not long after Malone’s comments. ‘So I said, it’s over. I knew coming in there would be some talk and controversies, but not like this.’ Days before the new season was to begin, Magic announced his retirement for a second time.
This was 25 years ago, and Magic remains a kind of prince in American life—popular, wealthy and genial, a healthy spokesman for the threat that most thought would quickly kill him. He has been of much greater, if incalculable, support to those infected. There is an acknowledgement to be made here, as obvious as it is awkward, which is that my juvenile fear of the virus is not comparable to the fears of those living with it.
Neither Magic or I had AIDS. I couldn’t have possibly been infected via what happened; what was temporarily spoilt was my mind, not my body. Magic has never developed the syndrome, which testifies to his physical discipline, but principally to the development—and efficacy—of antiretroviral treatment (ART). And also, perhaps, his ability to afford ART in a country whose president and congress have declared war on the Affordable Care Act, an Act that helps extend ART to the poor and uninsured. While the majority of poor and uninsured HIV sufferers receive treatment not under Obamacare but the Ryan White CARE Act, in 2013, 1.2 million people in the United States were living with HIV or AIDS—and only 37 per cent of them were receiving antiretroviral treatment.
Publicly, at least, Magic has been able to integrate his illness healthily into his identity. The end to his public story is that there wasn’t an end to his life. But the great seduction of celebrities—or at least of the stories we tell of them—is the fallacy that we might know them better than we know ourselves. It’s a particularly modern illusion, and leaves me wondering, in quieter moments, what weird and subtle integrations occurred in me while I was watching Magic. But still it seems that I understand his story better than my own. •
* Magic Johnson would be appointed to president George H.W. Bush’s National Commission on AIDS just days after this press conference, but he would resign in frustration less than a year later, writing to the president, ‘I am disappointed that you have dropped the ball and that your Administration is not doing everything that it must to fight this disease.’ Magic would claim that the president preferred photo opportunities to implementing the commission’s difficult recommendations.